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An essay by Stewart Edward White

The Coast Ranges

Title:     The Coast Ranges
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

At last, on the day appointed, we, with five horses, climbed the Cold Spring Trail to the ridge; and then, instead of turning to the left, we plunged down the zigzag lacets of the other side. That night we camped at Mono Canon, feeling ourselves strangely an integral part of the relief map we had looked upon so many times that almost we had come to consider its features as in miniature, not capacious for the accommodation of life-sized men. Here we remained a day while we rode the hills in search of Dinkey and Jenny, there pastured.

We found Jenny peaceful and inclined to be corralled. But Dinkey, followed by a slavishly adoring brindle mule, declined to be rounded up. We chased her up hill and down; along creek-beds and through the spiky chaparral. Always she dodged craftily, warily, with forethought. Always the brindled mule, wrapt in admiration at his companion's cleverness, crashed along after. Finally we teased her into a narrow canon. Wes and the Tenderfoot closed the upper end. I attempted to slip by to the lower, but was discovered. Dinkey tore a frantic mile down the side hill. Bullet, his nostrils wide, his ears back, raced parallel in the boulder-strewn stream-bed, wonderful in his avoidance of bad footing, precious in his selection of good, interested in the game, indignant at the wayward Dinkey, profoundly contemptuous of the besotted mule. At a bend in the canon interposed a steep bank. Up this we scrambled, dirt and stones flying. I had just time to bend low along the saddle when, with the ripping and tearing and scratching of thorns, we burst blindly through a thicket. In the open space on the farther side Bullet stopped, panting but triumphant. Dinkey, surrounded at last, turned back toward camp with an air of utmost indifference. The mule dropped his long ears and followed.

At camp we corralled Dinkey, but left her friend to shift for himself. Then was lifted up his voice in mulish lamentations until, cursing, we had to ride out bareback and drive him far into the hills and there stone him into distant fear. Even as we departed up the trail the following day the voice of his sorrow, diminishing like the echo of grief, appealed uselessly to Dinkey's sympathy. For Dinkey, once captured, seemed to have shrugged her shoulders and accepted inevitable toil with a real though cynical philosophy.

The trail rose gradually by imperceptible gradations and occasional climbs. We journeyed in the great canons. High chaparral flanked the trail, occasional wide gray stretches of "old man" filled the air with its pungent odor and with the calls of its quail. The crannies of the rocks, the stretches of wide loose shale, the crumbling bottom earth offered to the eye the dessicated beauties of creamy yucca, of yerba buena, of the gaudy red paint-brushes, the Spanish bayonet; and to the nostrils the hot dry perfumes of the semi-arid lands. The air was tepid; the sun hot. A sing-song of bees and locusts and strange insects lulled the mind. The ponies plodded on cheerfully. We expanded and basked and slung our legs over the pommels of our saddles and were glad we had come.

At no time did we seem to be climbing mountains. Rather we wound in and out, round and about, through a labyrinth of valleys and canons and ravines, farther and farther into a mysterious shut-in country that seemed to have no end. Once in a while, to be sure, we zigzagged up a trifling ascent; but it was nothing. And then at a certain point the Tenderfoot happened to look back.

"Well!" he gasped; "will you look at that!"

We turned. Through a long straight aisle which chance had placed just there, we saw far in the distance a sheer slate-colored wall; and beyond, still farther in the distance, overtopping the slate-colored wall by a narrow strip, another wall of light azure blue.

"It's our mountains," said Wes, "and that blue ridge is the channel islands. We've got up higher than our range."

We looked about us, and tried to realize that we were actually more than halfway up the formidable ridge we had so often speculated on from the Cold Spring Trail. But it was impossible. In a few moments, however, our broad easy canon narrowed. Huge crags and sheer masses of rock hemmed us in. The chaparral and yucca and yerba buena gave place to pine-trees and mountain oaks, with little close clumps of cottonwoods in the stream bottom. The brook narrowed and leaped, and the white of alkali faded from its banks. We began to climb in good earnest, pausing often for breath. The view opened. We looked back on whence we had come, and saw again, from the reverse, the forty miles of ranges and valleys we had viewed from the Ridge Trail.

At this point we stopped to shoot a rattlesnake. Dinkey and Jenny took the opportunity to push ahead. From time to time we would catch sight of them traveling earnestly on, following the trail accurately, stopping at stated intervals to rest, doing their work, conducting themselves as decorously as though drivers had stood over them with blacksnake whips. We tried a little to catch up.

"Never mind," said Wes, "they've been over this trail before. They'll stop when they get to where we're going to camp."

We halted a moment on the ridge to look back over the lesser mountains and the distant ridge, beyond which the islands now showed plainly. Then we dropped down behind the divide into a cup valley containing a little meadow with running water on two sides of it and big pines above. The meadow was brown, to be sure, as all typical California is at this time of year. But the brown of California and the brown of the East are two different things. Here is no snow or rain to mat down the grass, to suck out of it the vital principles. It grows ripe and sweet and soft, rich with the life that has not drained away, covering the hills and valleys with the effect of beaver fur, so that it seems the great round-backed hills must have in a strange manner the yielding flesh-elasticity of living creatures. The brown of California is the brown of ripeness; not of decay.

Our little meadow was beautifully named Madulce,[1] and was just below the highest point of this section of the Coast Range. The air drank fresh with the cool of elevation. We went out to shoot supper; and so found ourselves on a little knoll fronting the brown-hazed east. As we stood there, enjoying the breeze after our climb, a great wave of hot air swept by us, filling our lungs with heat, scorching our faces as the breath of a furnace. Thus was brought to our minds what, in the excitement of a new country, we had forgotten,--that we were at last on the eastern slope, and that before us waited the Inferno of the desert.

That evening we lay in the sweet ripe grasses of Madulce, and talked of it. Wes had been across it once before and did not possess much optimism with which to comfort us.

"It's hot, just plain hot," said he, "and that's all there is about it. And there's mighty little water, and what there is is sickish and a long ways apart. And the sun is strong enough to roast potatoes in."

"Why not travel at night?" we asked.

"No place to sleep under daytimes," explained Wes. "It's better to keep traveling and then get a chance for a little sleep in the cool of the night."

We saw the reasonableness of that.

"Of course we'll start early, and take a long nooning, and travel late. We won't get such a lot of sleep."

"How long is it going to take us?"

Wes calculated.

"About eight days," he said soberly.

The next morning we descended from Madulce abruptly by a dirt trail, almost perpendicular until we slid into a canon of sage-brush and quail, of mescale cactus and the fierce dry heat of sun-baked shale.

"Is it any hotter than this on the desert?" we inquired.

Wes looked on us with pity.

"This is plumb arctic," said he.

Near noon we came to a little cattle ranch situated in a flat surrounded by red dikes and buttes after the manner of Arizona. Here we unpacked, early as it was, for through the dry countries one has to apportion his day's journeys by the water to be had. If we went farther to-day, then to-morrow night would find us in a dry camp.

The horses scampered down the flat to search out alfilaria. We roosted under a slanting shed,--where were stock saddles, silver-mounted bits and spurs, rawhide riatas, branding-irons, and all the lumber of the cattle business,--and hung out our tongues and gasped for breath and earnestly desired the sun to go down or a breeze to come up. The breeze shortly did so. It was a hot breeze, and availed merely to cover us with dust, to swirl the stable-yard into our faces. Great swarms of flies buzzed and lit and stung. Wes, disgusted, went over to where a solitary cowpuncher was engaged in shoeing a horse. Shortly we saw Wes pressed into service to hold the horse's hoof. He raised a pathetic face to us, the big round drops chasing each other down it as fast as rain. We grinned and felt better.

The fierce perpendicular rays of the sun beat down. The air under the shed grew stuffier and more oppressive, but it was the only patch of shade in all that pink and red furnace of a little valley. The Tenderfoot discovered a pair of horse-clippers, and, becoming slightly foolish with the heat, insisted on our barbering his head. We told him it was cooler with hair than without; and that the flies and sun would be offered thus a beautiful opportunity, but without avail. So we clipped him,--leaving, however, a beautiful long scalp-lock in the middle of his crown. He looked like High-low-kickapoo-waterpot, chief of the Wam-wams. After a while he discovered it, and was unhappy.

Shortly the riders began to come in, jingling up to the shed, with a rattle of spurs and bit-chains. There they unsaddled their horses, after which, with great unanimity, they soused their heads in the horse-trough. The chief, a six-footer, wearing beautifully decorated gauntlets and a pair of white buckskin chaps, went so far as to say it was a little warm for the time of year. In the freshness of evening, when frazzled nerves had regained their steadiness, he returned to smoke and yarn with us and tell us of the peculiarities of the cattle business in the Cuyamas. At present he and his men were riding the great mountains, driving the cattle to the lowlands in anticipation of a rodeo the following week. A rodeo under that sun!

We slept in the ranch vehicles, so the air could get under us. While the stars still shone, we crawled out, tired and unrefreshed. The Tenderfoot and I went down the valley after the horses. While we looked, the dull pallid gray of dawn filtered into the darkness, and so we saw our animals, out of proportion, monstrous in the half light of that earliest morning. Before the range riders were even astir we had taken up our journey, filching thus a few hours from the inimical sun.

Until ten o'clock we traveled in the valley of the Cuyamas. The river was merely a broad sand and stone bed, although undoubtedly there was water below the surface. California rivers are said to flow bottom up. To the northward were mountains typical of the arid countries,--boldly defined, clear in the edges of their folds, with sharp shadows and hard, uncompromising surfaces. They looked brittle and hollow, as though made of papier mache and set down in the landscape. A long four hours' noon we spent beneath a live-oak near a tiny spring. I tried to hunt, but had to give it up. After that I lay on my back and shot doves as they came to drink at the spring. It was better than walking about, and quite as effective as regards supper. A band of cattle filed stolidly in, drank, and filed as stolidly away. Some half-wild horses came to the edge of the hill, stamped, snorted, essayed a tentative advance. Them we drove away, lest they decoy our own animals. The flies would not let us sleep. Dozens of valley and mountain quail called with maddening cheerfulness and energy. By a mighty exercise of will we got under way again. In an hour we rode out into what seemed to be a grassy foot-hill country, supplied with a most refreshing breeze.

The little round hills of a few hundred feet rolled gently away to the artificial horizon made by their closing in. The trail meandered white and distinct through the clear fur-like brown of their grasses. Cattle grazed. Here and there grew live-oaks, planted singly as in a park. Beyond we could imagine the great plain, grading insensibly into these little hills.

And then all at once we surmounted a slight elevation, and found that we had been traveling on a plateau, and that these apparent little hills were in reality the peaks of high mountains.

We stood on the brink of a wide smooth velvet-creased range that dipped down and down to miniature canons far below. Not a single little boulder broke the rounded uniformity of the wild grasses. Out from beneath us crept the plain, sluggish and inert with heat.

Threads of trails, dull white patches of alkali, vague brown areas of brush, showed indeterminate for a little distance. But only for a little distance. Almost at once they grew dim, faded in the thickness of atmosphere, lost themselves in the mantle of heat that lay palpable and brown like a shimmering changing veil, hiding the distance in mystery and in dread. It was a land apart; a land to be looked on curiously from the vantage-ground of safety,--as we were looking on it from the shoulder of the mountain,--and then to be turned away from, to be left waiting behind its brown veil for what might come. To abandon the high country, deliberately to cut loose from the known, deliberately to seek the presence that lay in wait,--all at once it seemed the height of grotesque perversity. We wanted to turn on our heels. We wanted to get back to our hills and fresh breezes and clear water, to our beloved cheerful quail, to our trails and the sweet upper air.

For perhaps a quarter of an hour we sat our horses, gazing down. Some unknown disturbance lazily rifted the brown veil by ever so little. We saw, lying inert and languid, obscured by its own rank steam, a great round lake. We knew the water to be bitter, poisonous. The veil drew together again. Wes shook himself and sighed, "There she is,--damn her!" said he.

[1] In all Spanish names the final e should be pronounced.

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: Coast Ranges